Travellers rush to reunite with loved ones as China brings down COVID wall after three years

Hong Kong/Shanghai: Travellers began streaming across land and sea crossings from Hong Kong to mainland China on Sunday, many eager for long-awaited reunions, as Beijing opened borders that have been all but shut since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After three years, the mainland is opening its border with Hong Kong and ending a requirement for incoming travellers to quarantine, dismantling a final pillar of a zero-COVID policy that had shielded China’s people from the virus but also cut them off from the rest of the world.

Travellers wait at a Hong Kong border checkpoint as tens of thousands surge into mainland China border as “COVID zero” ends after three years.Credit:Getty Images

China’s easing over the past month of one of the world’s tightest COVID regimes followed historic protests against a policy that included frequent testing, curbs on movement and mass lockdowns that heavily damaged the second-biggest economy.

“I’m so happy, so happy, so excited. I haven’t seen my parents for many years,” said Hong Kong resident Teresa Chow as she and dozens of other travellers prepared to cross into mainland China from Hong Kong’s Lok Ma Chau checkpoint early on Sunday.

“My parents are not in good health, and I couldn’t go back to see them even when they had colon cancer, so I’m really happy to go back and see them now,” she said, adding that she plans to head to her hometown in eastern China’s Ningbo city.

After two years of separation from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Seng-bun made sure he was among the first to cross the border following the reopening of crossing points on Sunday.

Travellers wait to cross Hong Kong’s Lok Ma Chau border checkpoint on Sunday.Credit:Getty Images

The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross over is one of the most visible signs of China’s easing of border restrictions, with travellers arriving from abroad also no longer required to undergo quarantine.

“I’m hurrying to get back to her,” Cheung, lugging a heavy suitcase, said as he prepared to cross at Lok Ma Chau station.

Travellers crossing between Hong Kong and mainland China, however, are still required to show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past 48 hours – a measure China has protested when imposed by other countries.

On a visit to the station on Sunday morning, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee said the sides would continue to expand the number of crossing points from the current seven to the full 14.

“The goal is to get back as quickly as possible to the pre-epidemic normal life,” Lee told reporters. “We want to get cooperation between the two sides back on track.”

Communist Party newspaper Global Times quoted Tan Luming, a port official in Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong, saying about 200 passengers were expected to take the ferry to Hong Kong, while another 700 were due to travel in the other direction, on the first day of reopening. Tan said a steady increase in passenger numbers is expected over coming days.

“I stayed up all night and got up at 4am as I’m so excited to return to the mainland to see my 80-year-old mother,” a Hong Kong woman identified only by her surname, Cheung, said on arrival at Shenzhen, where she was presented with “roses and health kits,” the paper said.

Many Chinese are also expected to start travelling abroad, a long-awaited shift for tourist spots in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, though several governments – worried about China’s COVID spike – are imposing curbs on travellers from the country.

Travel will not quickly return to pre-pandemic levels due to such factors as a dearth of international flights, analysts say.

China on Sunday also resumed issuing passports and travel visas for mainland residents, and ordinary visas and residence permits for foreigners. Beijing has quotas on the number of people who can travel between Hong Kong and China each day.

China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalisations in major cities and is bracing for a further spread into less developed areas with the start of China’s most important holiday of the year, set to get under way in coming days.

Authorities say they expect domestic rail and air journeys will double over the same period last year, bringing overall numbers close to those of the 2019 holiday period before the pandemic hit.

Meanwhile, the controversy continues over testing requirements being imposed on Chinese travellers by foreign governments — most recently Germany and Sweden. China says they aren’t science-based and has threatened unspecified countermeasures.

Chinese health authorities publish a daily count of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but those numbers include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-19-related deaths.

Authorities say that since the government ended compulsory testing and permitted people with mild symptoms to test themselves and convalesce at home, it can no longer provide a full picture of the state of the latest outbreak.

Government spokespeople have said the situation is under control and reject accusations from the World Health Organisation and others that it is not being transparent about the number of cases and deaths or providing other crucial information on the nature of the current outbreak that could lead to the emergence of new variants.

Despite such assertions, the Health Commission on Saturday rolled out regulations for strengthened monitoring of viral mutations, including testing of urban wastewater. The lengthy rules called for increased data gathering from hospitals and local government health departments and stepped-up checks on “pneumonia of unknown causes.”

Criticism has largely focused on heavy-handed enforcement of regulations, including open-ended travel restrictions that saw people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes sealed inside without adequate food or medical care.

Anger was also vented over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be confined for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and hygiene were commonly cited.

The social and economic costs eventually prompted rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, possibly influencing the Communist Party’s decision to swiftly ease the strictest measures and prioritise growth.

As part of the latest changes, China will also no longer bring criminal charges against people accused of violating border quarantine regulations, according to a notice issued by five government departments on Saturday.

Individuals currently in custody will be released and seized assets returned, the notice said.

The Transportation Ministry on Friday called on travellers to reduce trips and gatherings, particularly if they involve elderly people, pregnant women, small children and those with underlying conditions.

Reuters, AP

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